Archive for June, 2011

June 28, 2011

ALA: Ghost Tour

This doesn’t really have anything to do with YA stuff, but it happened to me while I was at the ALA conference. I no longer have a personal blog, only a personal Twitter, and this is the first thing I’ve ever put on Twitter that I really felt like needed to be saved somewhere besides Twitter.

I am talking about our GHOST TOUR. There are a variety of themed New Orleans tours available: Vampire Tour, Swamp Tour, Cemetary Tour, GHOST TOUR. My friends & I mulled it over and decided that the GHOST TOUR sounded really cheesy, but also like it would be entertaining. And even though we probably wouldn’t see any ghosts, we figured at least we could see some of the French Quarter and hear some cool historical stories.



I think I am just going to tell this story by reposting all of my tweets, which I rudely (but necessarily) posted throughout the entire tour. (If you’re not familiar with Twitter, using the # is a way to label your tweets. For example, you can search Twitter for #ala11 to see everything tweeted about the ALA 2011 conference. Or you can search #ghosttour to see all the tweets about ghost tours. You get the idea.)

ghost tour

Getting ready for the ghost tour!

  • “I hate haunted houses!” “Me too!” “Why are we going on a ghost tour?” “I like real ghosts.” “I don’t like to be touched by surprise.”
  • “‘Touched by surprise’ sounds like a 90s pop song.” “I hope it’s the new Justin Bieber song.” #touchedbysurprise
  • Our Ghost Tour guide: “This is parapsychology, not science. You can’t put a ghost in a petrie dish. I look forward to the day we can.”
  • Guide: “We’ll see a multi-million $ haunted house.” Me: “IS IT NICOLAS CAGE’S HOUSE?!” Guide: “… yeah.” #haunted #yessss
  • Also everyone besides me & my friends quit the tour already. Or got ghosted?! We think it’s the guide’s first day. #stillawesome
  • Me: “Do you know where Live & Let Die was filmed?” Guide: “Yeah, we already passed it.” Me: >:( #worstghosttourguide
  • Sam: Is this everyone? Guide: Yeah, everyone else left the tour. Me: They couldn’t take it when shit got REAL.
  • Ghost Tour guide (plaintively): “I wish I were better at telling ghost stories.” #ustoo
  • Guide: “I think the reason people don’t see many ghosts here even though it’s so haunted is it’s crowded & our electromagnetic fields….”
  • “… tend to interact with ghosts and repel them.” #ghostscience
  • “I’m thirsty. I’m going to die & haunt a water cooler.” “Ghosts can’t interact w/ water. They’re noncorporeal.” “I’m so glad you said that.”
  • YESSS FINALLY, NIC CAGE’S OLD HOUSE. IT HAS A TRULY EFFED UP HAUNTING STORY ATTACHED TO IT. [You can read about this house and its horrifying story from someone else.]
haunted house

Nic Cage's creepy haunted house

  • The tour guide’s friend, inexplicably dressed like a Newsie, has joined us on the rest of the ghost tour.
  • OH DUH the guide’s friend is a ghost. That explains his Newsies costume.
  • “Would that guy be offended if I asked him if he was a Newsie?” “Just ask if you can buy a pape.” #newsieghost

I didn't really mean to take a pic of the Newsie (far left, obviously) but I'm so glad I did.

  • Guide: “Now that this tour is over, I’ll confess that this is the first time I’ve given a solo tour.” #obvi #wecouldtell
  • I forgot one key piece of info: halfway through the tour our guide started smoking a corncob pipe. #wtf

We survived the Ghost Tour. Barely.

Honestly, I had an awesome time on the tour, which is no doubt partially thanks to the enormous Hurricane I drank during the tour. But also I was with a group of people who had a good sense of humor about how ridiculous the tour was. Oh, goodness. Anyway, so, I guess I would probably recommend taking the New Orleans Haunted History tour, because even if you don’t see any ghosts or receive a fully-trained tour guide, you can still have a really enjoyable evening.

June 25, 2011

ALA Dispatch: Series Fiction & Claudia Kishi’s Wardrobe

Hello all! The ALA conference is going wonderfully. I’m so happy to be in New Orleans with so many rad librarians (and my non-librarian friend Arianna, who is graciously hosting me even though I won’t stop telling her about YA things that she doesn’t really care about.)

Anyway, we’ve only been at the conference one day, but I wanted to post about the session I attended last night, because it was wonderful! The session was Keep ‘Em Coming: Series Fiction Creators Talk Shop. The panelists were:

  • Dan Gutman (Baseball Card Adventures, My Weird School)
  • David Levithan (Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist; Will Grayson, Will Grayson; The Lover’s Dictionary; and, among other things, ghostwriter for Ann M. Martin)
  • Jonathan Stroud (the Bartimaeus Sequence)
  • Lauren Myracle (TTYL, etc)

I’d only heard of two of these authors (Levithan and Myracle), but all four were great speakers. I really want to pick up Jonathan Stroud’s books after hearing him talk (and not just because of the British accent). I probably won’t pick up any of Dan Gutman’s books since they are for younger readers and/or are about baseball, but they sound great for younger readers and/or baseball fans.

But, let’s talk about David Levithan, shall we! He talked about the “heyday” of series fiction in the late 80s/early 90s, when the Babysitters Club and Goosebumps and Animorphs books were all coming out once a month or even twice a month. And now publishers have moved away from that kind of “episodic” fiction, where there isn’t much character development, but the same characters come back over and over and stay in 8th grade forever and deal with Jackie Rodowski forever. (He said something about how unbelievably cruel it was to keep characters in 8th grade forever. He and Lauren Myracle both talked about how junior high is traumatizing but provides great fodder for books.) Now the trend is toward series books like Harry Potter, where there’s a smaller number of books and a definite plot and character arc. But, for example, Levithan edited the Hunger Games trilogy, and he said when he came into the office with the cover for Mockingjay, which says, “The final book in the Hunger Games trilogy!”, his adult co-workers all said things like, “Is it really the last one? Can’t she write one more?” and he said, “No! It’s a trilogy! The story is over!” But even adults have this impulse to want more of characters we like, and that’s why books like the Babysitters Club stick with us. We had more of them. We know those girls. They were our friends.

David Levithan proposes that with digital publication, we’ll see a return to this kind of episodic, book-a-month series fiction. The 39 Clues, which I have not read, is apparently a step in this direction as a “multimedia” series, where there are the books, but the characters and adventures continue online in between books. What an exciting concept!

He also talked about how in 1996, Scholastic got its first Internet connection and used it to host AOL Chats with the Babysitters. (I very definitely remember reading about those chats in the backs of books and being soo mad that we didn’t have AOL.) If you did have AOL and participated in those chats, you were talking to young David Levithan, who started off as a 19-year-old intern at Scholastic (“I was this 19-year-old man sitting on the subway reading the Babysitters Club books with a highlighter.”) He talked about how funny the chats were, since the girls already knew everything about the babysitters–which got him into trouble when he was asked about Jessi’s favorite ballet. (“The Nutcracker.” “What’s your favorite character from The Nutcracker?” “Uh… the Nutcracker?”)

“I was this 22-year-old gay Jew from New Jersey, and these 11-year-old girls were asking me, ‘What are you wearing?’ ‘Uh, Capri pants, of course!'”

Love it. Now I would please like for David Levithan to host AOL chats as Katniss Everdeen. “What are you wearing, Katniss?” “Clothes don’t matter! No one is safe!”

Anyway, after the presentation I sidled up to David Levithan and told him how much I’d loved reading my friend Amanda’s stories about his visit to her library, and all the fun facts he told her about the Babysitters Club. I told him how I got an extra hole in one of my ears to be like Claudia Kishi. “I’ve since realized that I am no Claudia Kishi, but it never healed over, so I have an extra hole in my ear because of the Babysitters Club.”

Also, THANK GOD, he told me that in the process of relaunching the BSC books and making them “time-neutral,” they made no changes to Claudia’s wardrobe, because “Claudia doesn’t care what’s in fashion.” So true!


Fear not: beneath this trendy new cover, Claudia Kishi's wardrobe remains unchanged

I also got my picture taken with David Levithan, and you bet your books (I meant to type “boots” but I think “bet your books” is actually more appropriate) that I will post it, as soon as I get it from my friend Michelle’s camera.

Edit: here it is! God, I look kind of psychotic. That is just how happy I was to meet David Levithan, I suppose!

David Levithan & Renata

My face looks as crazy as Claudia's outfits! (Topical humor.)

More about ALA later–I have to leave and go see Jeff Kinney!

June 23, 2011

ALA Conference Excitement!

Hello all! I am getting ready to leave for the biggest social event of the year (for librarians)! The ALA Annual Conference! Several of my grad school friends and I are road-trippin’ down to New Orleans to geek out with 30,000 other librarians (and librarians in training). I guess it’s my first professional conference, although when I was a senior in college I presented at the American Pop Culture Association National Conference (on why Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is awesome, which I am still happy to discuss). But since I plan to become a professional librarian, and not a professional Scholar of Pop Culture (UNFORTUNATELY), I’m going to go ahead and call this my first professional conference.

There are TONS of workshops and talks scheduled, and I’ve spent a lot of time poring over the schedule and figuring out what workshops to attend. Obviously some on networking and the job search, but what else? Some of my peers are focusing on learning about new technologies, or joining new committees. Me? I’m planning to stalk as many YA authors as possible. Here’s a list of people who will be there:

  • JOHN GREEN, the YA love of my life
  • David Levithan (there to talk about series fiction, meaning I will hopefully get to pepper him with questions about his history as a Babysitters Club ghostwriter)
  • Jeff Kinney
  • Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket)*
  • Rebecca Stead
  • Laurie Halse Anderson
  • Maureen Johnson
  • Holly Black
  • Lauren Myracle
  • Other authors I haven’t heard of but who are probably also awesome

* I met Daniel Handler once in San Francisco. It went like this:

Me: UMMM, I’m sorry, I just have to ask, are you Daniel Handler?
Daniel Handler (noticeably surprised): Yes.

And then we talked for awhile. I don’t remember. It’s not a great story. But he did sign my copy of The Unauthorized Autobiography of Lemony Snicket.

(By the way, if you are an ALA member and will be at this conference, or if you are just curious, or if you are stalking me, you can view my planned ALA conference schedule at ALA Connect.)

I also created a “professional” Twitter account for “networking.” Feel free to follow @sanckenr for my “professional” “tweets” about “librarianship.” It might be the fastest way to find out if I throw up on John Green when I meet him.

June 17, 2011

Review: Every Little Thing in The World

Confession: I love summer camp. Love it. I went every summer as a kid, and as an adult, I spent four summers working at various Girl Scout camps. (I’m still volunteering occasionally at one this summer, when time allows.) And, of course, I love YA lit. So you’d think that I would love YA books about summer camp!

Well, mostly, I don’t, and here’s why: all the children’s and YA books I’ve read about camp so far are wrong. First of all, they are always about the kinds of fancy, expensive camps where kids stay in cabins. Also, they are always about co-ed camps. I acknowledge that expensive, co-ed camps exist. But I went to the kind of Girl Scout camp where you sleep in platform tents and make weird little crafts out of pine cones. As an adult working at Girl Scout camp, I learned just how tight the budget is at those camps. The reason we made crafts out of pine cones are because pine cones are free and we’ve already spent our summer budget on glue and marshmallows.


The camp I attended and worked at. NO CABINS. CABINS ARE FOR SISSES.

I literally laughed out loud (repeatedly) at the plot of Camp Rock 2: The Final Jam, which involves Camp Rock being outshone by the bigger, fancier Camp Star. The problem with that is that Camp Rock is a friggin’ ridiculously nice camp. (I briefly Googled to try to find images of their camp so I could show you, but all I came up with were lots of pictures of the Jonas Brothers pouting in nature. But let me just tell you that in their very nice, wood-paneled dining hall, the juice comes out of trumpet-shaped dispensers. Do you even know how much craft glue you could buy for the cost of one trumpet-shaped juice dispenser?)


Look at them, inside their CABIN. Ugh.

Anyway, so YA books about camp tend to focus on the drama of life at a long-term, co-ed camp. (Or, a single-sex camp with another single-sex camp across the lake. These camps always have huge, beautiful lakes.) Usually they are romances that spring up amidst cushy cabins. Bah! Also, they are always doing weird shit like Color Wars. What even is a Color War? BAH. Books about camp never focus on what I love about camp: the friendships, the creativity that comes up when you’re bored in your tent with no electricity, the delight in gaining prowess at new skills, and (yes) spending time in nature.

I did find a camp book that I actually kind of liked (even though it was still wrong):


Every Little Thing in the World by Nina de Gramont.

It’s the story of sixteen-year-old Sydney, a girl with divorced parents whose mother is fed up with her and whose dad is a strict “live off the land” type. Sydney gets sent to live with her father for the summer, shortly after discovering that she is pregnant. She’s afraid to tell her father, and he sends her off to an intense wilderness camp without the summer, completely unaware of her pregnancy. It’s a co-ed camp (drama!) and one of the boys happens to be the start of a Dawson’s Creek-esque TV-show (double drama!) and some of the boys are sent from a juvenile detention center (triple drama!). The teens get sent off on long canoe trips. To Sydney’s surprise, she really enjoys canoeing and being outdoors, and she enjoys the teamwork of canoeing. She also spends a lot of time reflecting on her pregnancy and weighing the options. I won’t spoil the ending, but I really appreciated how well de Gramont captured her tough decision and the process she went through. I also appreciated that romantic drama was kept to a relative minimum, even though it was a co-ed camp (boo). It captured a lot of what I love about camp–friendships, learning new skills, loving nature. And yet it had enough drama to make it a compelling and surprising read.

I’m still waiting for someone to write an awesome YA novel about Girl Scout camp. If no one does it in the next few years I might be forced to put pen to paper myself.

June 13, 2011

Is YA Lit Too Dark?

Spoiler: no.

I’m a little late to the game on this, but I still wanted to chime in. Because why have a blog if not to post your opinions even if no one else cares about them?

It seems like every few months or so, some adult has written a big story discovering YA lit for the first time and being shocked at how well-written/violent/popular/whatever it is. Meanwhile, YA lit continues on being written and read like usual.

Most recently, Meghan Cox Gurdon wrote this story for the Wall Street Journal, Darkness Too Visible, about how YA lit is just too graphic and dark for teens to handle, and whatever is a parent to purchase for their poor teens to read?

She quotes a concerned mother who:

Had popped into the bookstore to pick up a welcome-home gift for her 13-year-old, who had been away. Hundreds of lurid and dramatic covers stood on the racks before her, and there was, she felt, “nothing, not a thing, that I could imagine giving my daughter. It was all vampires and suicide and self-mutilation, this dark, dark stuff.” She left the store empty-handed.

Right after this story went up, I read All This Darkness! What to Buy the Grownup Reader (A Parody) by Sarah Ockler, a pretty funny piece about how condescending Gordun’s article is. One of my favorite parts of Ockler’s piece was:

I recently stood slack-jawed in the adult fiction section of my local big box book store, having decided that supporting my community while getting personalized recommendations by professionals who generally adore books and make it their business to know exactly what sorts of things a reader will love was just not on my to-do list this year, feeling stupefied and helpless.

The mom in Gurdon’s story could have asked a damn librarian (or small bookstore employee) for some kind of appropriate book rather than standing at Barnes & Noble and wringing her hands. But whatever. We all know about librarians and their leftist, anti-censorship agendas.

Anyway, assuming libraries are out of the question, is it even true that YA lit has gotten “darker”? Darker than what, exactly? YA lit is a relatively recent phenomenon. Until maybe thirty, forty years ago, if you weren’t reading children’s books, you were reading adult books. Adult vampire-suicide-mutilation books.

Gurdon even briefly points this out in her article:

As it happens, 40 years ago, no one had to contend with young-adult literature because there was no such thing. There was simply literature, some of it accessible to young readers and some not.

I don’t really understand how this is supposed to be preferable to the existence of young adult literature.

Anyway, tons of people have already responded to this article. There was a pretty hilarious Twitter meme: #YAKills. (A few highlights: “I became convinced that my labrador retriever was my daemon, and we got kicked out of every restaurant for a year. #YAkills@NaturallySteph. “Shared 1 pair of unwashed jeans w/3 friends for a summer – not only did I not get a boyfriend, but no one would sit next to me. #YAKills” @ChandraYB )

There was also the serious version, #YASaves. Sherman Alexie (author of the YA book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, as well as several books, short stories, and poems for adults) wrote a response to Gurdon’s article that’s probably the best explanation of how YA lit saves: Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood.

He talks about his own childhood of poverty and abuse. He talks about the children and teens who have responded positively to his novel, which gets called out by Gurdon for being popular among teens, yet depraved. Do read Alexie’s piece if you are at all interested in YA lit or young adults or humans. A small highlight:

When some cultural critics fret about the “ever-more-appalling” YA books, they aren’t trying to protect African-American teens forced to walk through metal detectors on their way into school. Or Mexican-American teens enduring the culturally schizophrenic life of being American citizens and the children of illegal immigrants. Or Native American teens growing up on Third World reservations. Or poor white kids trying to survive the meth-hazed trailer parks. They aren’t trying to protect the poor from poverty. Or victims from rapists.

No, they are simply trying to protect their privileged notions of what literature is and should be. They are trying to protect privileged children.

Word, Sherman Alexie. Word.

Or as Linda Holmes wrote for NPR:

While the WSJ piece refers to the YA fiction view of the world as a funhouse mirror, I fear that what’s distorted is the vision of being a teenager that suggests kids don’t know pathologies like suicide or abuse unless they read about them in books.

Obviously, I would prefer it if no children or teens had to suffer. But the fact is, millions of young adults are survivors of abuse and/or poverty and/or homelessness and/or discrimination and/or any number of things that are much worse than anything that happened in Breaking Dawn.

And even for privileged children, there is value in reading “dark” books. I myself grew up a happy, white, middle-class kid. I had my own little school dramas and angst, of course, but overall I was extremely lucky. But I devoured Lurlene McDaniel books–you know, the ones about teenagers dying of cancer? Why did I do that? I didn’t have cancer. A cousin of mine died of leukemia when I was four or five, but I didn’t know him very well and don’t consider myself to have been particularly scarred by the experience. (it’s sadder to me now, as an adult, to think back on what his death must have been like for my older cousins, my aunts and uncles, and my parents, than it was for me personally as a child.) And it wasn’t just me–Lurlene McDaniel’s books, and other copycat teen illness books, are extremely popular. According to Wikipedia, she’s written over sixty YA books.

In case you’re not familiar with McDaniel’s books, here’s a plot summary of one, chosen at random from Amazon.


Wait, she dies? Spoiler alert, Lurlene!!

She Died Too Young (published 1994–well before the alleged onset of Darkness in YA lit)

Chelsea James and Katie O’Roark met at Jenny House and spent a wonderful summer together. Now Chelsea and her mother are staying with Katie as Chelsea awaits news concerning a heart transplant. While waiting for a compatible donor, Chelsea meets Jillian, a girl who’s funny and kind. Jillian is also waiting. She needs a heart-lung transplant. The two girls become fast friends. When Chelsea meets Jillian’s brother, he awakens feelings in Chelsea she’s never known before. However, as her medical situation grows desperate, Chelsea finds herself in a contest for her life against her very best friend.

I’m pretty sure I read that one. Why would I read that? That is super sad. I mean, the title gives it away. I read it because kids and young adults are trying on the idea of mortality, of tragedy. Even if I didn’t need a heart-lung transplant, and neither did anyone else I knew, there was still the idea that someone out there did, and someday I might. Someday I would die! How sad! I read about dying teens, and teens with drug problems, and teens who were exposed to toxic waste and developed super powers. I read about teens who were abandoned alone in the woods with only a hatchet and their wits to keep them alive. I turned out fine (does that sound braggy?).

I also definitely slipped into my mom’s bookshelf and read some adult books I didn’t really understand. I mean, I could read the words, but I didn’t really understand them. I distinctly remember reading She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb at about age 12 and having no idea what was going on, but feeling really grown up that I had it. I also remember seeing the movie Cider House Rules as a young teen and thinking Tobey Maguire was like, so cute. Then as an adult I read the book and went, wait, this is about abortion? Was that part in the movie? (I checked and yes, it’s totally in the movie. It’s like, the central premise of the movie. But I didn’t get it because I didn’t really know what abortion was.) If kids aren’t old enough to be reading something, they won’t understand it.

If teens aren’t already doing meth, they’re  not going to run out and start after they read Crank by Ellen Hopkins. But it might help them gain an understanding of why someone might start doing drugs.  And if they have been affected by meth, they’ll be relieved to see someone on the page whose experiences might match their own.

I guess in summary all I have to say is: if you don’t like the Hunger Games, don’t read the Hunger Games, and don’t buy a copy for your kids. But please settle down about what a travesty it is that teens are reading books where bad things happen, or I will come to your house and shoot you with a crossbow. I’m unhinged! I read YA literature! Do not fuck with me!

June 9, 2011

Can We Talk About the Breaking Dawn Trailer?

You guys. I can’t tell you how excited/appalled I am for the Breaking Dawn movie (part 1!) to come out. I am not a fan of Twilight per se, but I did slog through all four books and I do love talking about them. (I always preemptively clarify that I read them while I was in the Peace Corps. I find that this cuts off judgment. Oh, what, you haven’t read all four Twilight books? Yeah, I read them… while I was saving babies* in a developing nation, NBD.)

Anyway, so, I’d read all four books. (Note: in case it’s not clear, this post will contain spoilers for Breaking Dawn.) Then after the first movie, lots of people were talking about Twilight. Specifically, lots of people were talking about how effed-up Twilight is. I’m not going to go too in-depth about that; I feel like other blogs have already talked about how effed-up Twilight is better than I could hope to do. But for a few years now, my party trick has been to say, “Yeah, sure, Twilight is messed up, but do you know what happens in the fourth book? Can I tell you?” And then I tell them and revel in their horrified stares and their adorable insistence that I am making it up. But no, my friends, I am not capable of making up the atrocities of Breaking Dawn. Only Stephenie Meyer is.

Now that the movie is approaching, I feel the way a friend of mine feels about Scientology. For a long time, her party trick was to explain all the hilarious details of Scientology (“And there’s an alien lord named Xenu–yeah, seriously–“) But now South Park and everyone else have made fun of Scientology. It’s old hat. Everyone knows how crazy Scientology is. And soon, everyone will know how crazy Breaking Dawn is.


Anyway, the trailer. In case you have not seen it (or would simply like to revisit it), here it is:

So, first of all: the first minute of this trailer is mail getting delivered. Was this movie sponsored by the U. S. Post Office? This perfectly encapsulates how simultaneously appalling and boring I find the entire Twilight saga.

Second of all: “No measure of time with you will be long enough. But we’ll start with forever.” Edward, that is meaningless, but I will give you a pass because everything you say is either meaningless or offensive.

Also, can we talk about how Bella does not look at all pregnant when she starts freaking out? I mean, I know her pregnancy was all super vampire fast and everything, but I feel like that scene is just going to trigger some eating disorders. I guess it’s more visually compelling than a scene of her looking at a pregnancy test or something.

In conclusion, as is true with all things Twilight, the best part of this trailer is Charlie Swan. Play the trailer back and just watch his reaction to the wedding invite (It’s at 0:26.) Thank you, Charlie, for saying what we’re all feeling.

* Number of babies personally saved by me during my two years in the Peace Corps: zero. But whatever, how many babies have you saved? The most important thing to remember is: none of us are as bad of people as Bella Swan. She is the worst person.

June 7, 2011

Review: White Cat by Holly Black

White Cat by Holly Black was on my summer reading list. It’s the first one off the list I’ve read so far. And I didn’t even read it, I just listened to it. (It’s fine, it’s still the first week of June. I have time, right?) Anyway, it was so awesome, you guys! Normally I’m kind of ambivalent about audiobooks. I love the idea of them, especially for long trips. But in practice, I get fidgety. I usually end up listening to a disc and then changing to music for awhile, then putting in the next disc. I listened to White Cat all the way through, and I was mad when it was over. I already requested the sequel, Red Glove, from the library. (In audiobook form, of course, since it is also narrated by my celebrity crush Jesse Eisenberg.)

Partly I think this audiobook was successful because of its narrator (my celebrity crush Jesse Eisenberg). He was a perfect match for the book’s narrator, Cassel Sharp. Cassel’s a teenage con man attending an upper-crust private school. He’s often the smartest guy in the room, though he’s not always quite as smart as he thinks he is. I know not everyone loved The Social Network the way I did, but hopefully we can all admit that my celebrity crush Jesse Eisenberg is an excellent smartass.


My celebrity crush Jesse Eisenberg

I didn’t know much about the book. I might not have read it if it hadn’t been narrated by my celebrity crush Jesse Eisenberg. But I’m so glad I did! I knew it was a fantasy book, which isn’t usually my jam. But for some reason I thought it was an old timey fantasy book, which really isn’t my jam. But, it isn’t! It’s my favorite type of fantasy book, which is, of course, fantasy books set in modern day where everything is the same except for one magical difference. I also love it when the political ramifications of magical differences are explored in detail. (This is also why I love X-Men so much, though I guess that’s sci-fi, not fantasy. Whatevs. See also: the scene from Harry Potter when the Minister of Magic talks to the regular Prime Minister of England. Totally awesome. Is that book 5 or book 6? Uhh either way, totally awesome.)

Anyway, the one magical difference in the world of White Cat is that some people are born with a magical power. These people are called “curse workers” and they’re very rare. There are seven kinds of curse workers, and the most common type is luck workers. As the name implies, these people can change your luck. Mostly, people hire them to be present at weddings and baptisms and stuff. But there are other ones, like death workers (who… can kill you) and memory workers (who can erase your memories, or give you false memories). It’s illegal to ever use these abilities, so most people who have them end up as criminals.

Everyone in Cassel’s family is a curse worker, except for Cassel. He’s the youngest and he’s still in school while his two older brothers work their way up the hierarchy of one of the biggest crime families. His mother is in jail after one of her cons went bad on her. Cassel has learned a lot from her, though, and even though he’s not a worker, he’s still a talented con artist in his own right. But he tries to downplay his family life at school–he just wants to keep his head down and fit in. He especially doesn’t want anyone to find out that he accidentally killed his childhood best friend, Lila. Unfortunately, Cassel starts having strange dreams of Lila that cause him to sleepwalk, and he’s forced to leave boarding school when he almost sleepwalks off the roof and the school declares him an insurance liability.

Cassel starts to suspect that someone is working him, and he starts to discover that things in his family are not what they seem.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but it’s all very exciting! I figured out some of the plot twists, but not all of them. I rate this book four Jesse Eisenbergs (out of a possible five Jesse Eisenbergs).


White Cat by Holly Black

June 2, 2011

Colorful Characters: YA Lit and Diversity

Previously, I posted about my difficulty in creating questions for my book discussion group project. But I finally came up with some, hooray! You can view the finished project here (including book summaries and all the discussion questions I slaved over.) I spent a lot of time thinking about how to talk about race and culture in a way that didn’t sound awkward. I think this is something a lot of white Americans spend a lot of time thinking about (or else no time at all). I ended up calling my project the “Multicultural Voices Book Discussion Group,” though I’m still not happy with the name.

Ultimately, I think discussion of race and culture is something that can often be done more effectively in YA books than in adult books. (I think this might also be true of sexuality.) YA books often deal with a search for a sense of self, which includes a search for racial or cultural identity. YA narrators can often pull off a more self-conscious discussion of race than adult narrators. This is important on a literal level as well as on a metaphorical level.

Too, young people are more accepting of change. It’s realistic to have YA characters questioning the status quo in a way that many adult characters would be incapable of doing. (Not necessarily the case, of course. Look at Atticus Finch.) Even so, it’s hard to talk about issues of race without talking about race and being too heavy-handed. Racism as experienced today is subtle. We no longer have “whites only” drinking fountains, but wealthy suburbs might have de facto whites only schools. Young black teens might not be explicitly barred from entering certain stores, but they might be tailed by security the entire time they shop (as seen on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air).


Fresh, but Persecuted

Also, discussing race does not have to equal talking about racism. Books, YA and otherwise, can feature characters celebrating their culture, or even taking it for granted. We can and should have books about black characters who aren’t defined by being black. We also can and should have books about white American characters who seriously engage with what it means to be white. I can’t think of any YA books that really do that. If you know of any, please leave them in the comments! Alternately, please write one.

Anyway, here are the eight books I chose for my Multicultural Voices discussion group:

I picked these eight not necessarily because they are my eight favorite books, but to provide a variety of viewpoints and racial/cultural identities. Of these, my favorites are The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (an instant classic and a must-read, in my opinion), Ten Things I Hate About Me, and Ask Me No Questions. Cuba 15 by Nancy Osa is another great novel, and I really admire the way it shows its protagonist grappling with all the political and personal ramifications of being Cuban-American. In retrospect, I probably should have included this book instead of Return to Sender, and I say this as an ardent admirer of Julia Alvarez’s work for adults (In The Time of the Butterflies is an all-time favorite.)  Return to Sender is the only book of these eight with a white narrator, and it’s really more of a middle grade novel than a YA novel.

PS: I have a future blog entry in mind that will be dedicated to giving Justine Larbalestier a gold star for her YA books and their treatment of race. I am sure you’re all on the edge of your seats waiting for it.

What are your favorite YA novels that deal with race? Are they by Justine Larbalestier? Why or why not?